March 2010


In my last post, I  discussed the necessity of having an outline–especially for nonfiction works, although it is handy for fiction as well–and how to set one up. Today I’d like to look at the introductions and conclusions, as well as how to bring outline points together.

First, the introduction:

Regardless of what you’re writing, the goal of your introductory statements should be to make the reader want to keep reading and offer some information about your subject. What exactly you include in your intro will depend on the type of document you’re writing and who your readership is, especially in regards to how much they know about your subject and the formality of what you’re writing.

Your intro for a business report, for instance, will be succinct and include your main points spelled out so the reader doesn’t have to guess where you’re headed. For a magazine article, your intro should present your topic, but may do so in more of a mysterious manner, giving just enough information to hook your reader.  And for fiction, you certainly don’t want to give away much, but you might begin to set up one of your characters or your setting. Or, better yet, dive right into the action.

For a nonfiction piece, your introduction could take the form of a brief summary of what you will cover; the problem your article will solve; or provide some background or history about your subject. Typically, your introduction will not be more than a paragraph for a nonfiction article or business report, unless the report itself is several pages.

I recommend not trying to write your introduction until the rest of your outline is complete and you know exactly where you’re headed. Even with fiction, once you’ve established your timeline and the path your story will travel, it will then be easier to determine the exact place you want to open your story.

Your intro and conclusion should serve as bookends, so to speak, for your work. There should be a sense of fulfillment in your reader after finishing what you’ve written, where he feels as though he has been taken on a complete journey. Nothing should be left undone. A well-thought out conclusion can provide this.

In light of this, your conclusion should:

— in some way reinforce ideas already presented. This is not the place to introduce something new. The only time you can get away with this is if you’re writing fiction and setting yourself up for a sequel. In that case, you’ll want to present a taste of what’s to come. But for any nonfiction work, especially in the business arena, stick with what you’ve already discussed.

— be written either as a summary of your main points; a final push for action; a recommendation (especially for business reports); or simply something to leave the reader thinking. It’s OK to end your piece with a question–even a hypothetical one–if you’re still on topic from your main points.

—  come full circle. You can do this either by relating back to the points in your introduction or through your use of summarization to make sure all your points are tied up nicely.

I’m not recommending you write your intro and conclusion immediately after finishing your outline. In fact, I usually write my intro last, even after the conclusion. I need to know all that I’ve said before I can introduce it or summarize it. But sometimes, these parts may just come to you as you’re writing, in which case, definitely go with the flow!

If you’ve chosen to stick with your outline (even somewhat) before you start writing your draft, there will come a time when you need to connect the dots of your subpoints and main points. Writing the transitions from point to point or paragraph to paragraph can be one of the hardest parts of writing your draft.

Transition sentences are crucial for linking paragraphs together in a logical flow, which helps keep your reader interested. Here are some tips for transitioning (Note: these are more for nonfiction works, although even in fiction transitions need to be smooth, especially if you are changing  your point of view. You need to make it clear to your reader where you are going in your new paragraph or section.):

— Use a sentence that finalizes the preceding paragraph and also brings in the topic of the next paragraph.

— If the new paragraph you’re transitioning into is not at all related to the preceding one, an entirely separate paragraph may need to be written, strictly for the purpose of transitioning. This paragraph would be a set-up, of sorts, for the new paragraph you’re moving into. As you read your draft, if you have two paragraphs together that seem very disjointed, this might help bring them together more cohesively.

—  The use of common transitioning words is helpful to begin your new paragraph: therefore, first, second, finally, next, similarly, besides, as a result, for example, meanwhile , etc.  See which flow more naturally with what you’ve written.

Again, the goal of what you write is to keep your reader reading. If your story or article does not flow well due to illogical connections of paragraphs or disorganization of information, you may well lose your reader along the way. Smooth transitions can greatly help keep your work moving along.

By the way, if you’re a Christian grandparent who has a great story about influencing your grandkids for Christ, I’d love to hear from you! I’m currently looking for stories to share in a compilation book that is now in proposal stage with a mainline Christian publisher. You can read guidelines and get more information here.

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Many writers simply dive into their writing projects when the mood hits them and not bother to outline their writing. Then, half way in, they’ll look back over their work and realize they’ve gotten way off track from where they originally started.

Whether you write for business, create non-fiction articles, write educational materials, write for children, or even write novels, outlining your plan of action before you start can save you time and help keep you focused. Additionally, outlining helps create a visual you can use to see the overall structure of your work, and it makes writing your draft and doing reorganization work much easier.

In this first of two posts, I’ll take a look at how to set up an outline and discuss what the beginnings of one should look like.

Before starting your outline, you’ll need to determine how you want to organize your work. Should you organize chronologically or reverse chronologically, or should the elements be organized by a particular related grouping? If you’re writing fiction, you can organize by chapter or by plot line, which often involves a time line, so you can keep track of where your story is headed.

Once you determine how to organize, you’ll then need to group related pieces of information. Group these into major and minor points. Your major points should directly support the purpose or theme of your work, while the minor points would, in turn, support the major ones. If you find minor points along the way that do not support any of your major points,  either get rid of those minor ones, or if you think the information is critical, develop other similar points so you can also create a major point for the group of minor ones. You don’t want any stragglers!

Start off by labeling all these major points with a Roman numeral, beginning with the Introduction. If you’re writing nonfiction, these major points will ultimately become sentences, so you can either turn them into sentence form now, or leave them as words or phrases, developing sentences from them later.

Place your main points or main headings into logical order, based on the organizational method you’ve chosen. If you decided on a chronological organization, your main headings may simply be dates, time frames,  or events.

After your main headings are laid out, arrange each of your minor points under them accordingly, using capital letters.  Make sure your minor points carry equal weight in that they share importance in your story or article. If they do not, move the lesser important ones to become subpoints of the minor points. Label these with Arabic numerals.

Now that you have the basic structure for your outline, next time I’ll discuss creating an introduction, a conclusion, and joining your points in between!

If you have an article or other piece of work in the beginning stages right now, apply these principles to create an outline for it. Let me know how it goes!

Whether you’re writing a book, an article, or business correspondence, your title plays an important  role. To be effective, titles should:

• project your work’s image (humorous, educational, personal story)

• state your work’s purpose (if even in a roundabout way)

• grab your audience’s attention as quickly as possible

If you’re writing a book, especially non-fiction, it’s helpful to check other titles already published on your topic. How did publishers approach the subject in titling? Direct, catchy, with subtitles?

For non-fiction and even some business writing, the following are effective phrases to include in your titles:

• numbers

• qualifiers (most, best, greatest)

• “How to…”

• “Keys to,” “tips for,” “success”  (think “10 Keys to Successful Weight Loss”)

• “simple,” “easy,” “quick”

For fiction, you’re more interested in trying to create mood and tone with your titles. Match your genre, be it mystery, historical fiction, or sci-fi. Your title could also play off your main character in some way, especially if you’re writing a series.

Take time to title your work appropriately. Make sure it reflects what you’ve written and that it will make someone pull it off the shelf in a bookstore or off their cluttered desk at work to read it. Just keep in mind that if you’re working with an editor, she will probably end up changing it anyway!

Although the headline reads “story,” the following applies for books, articles, business writing–nearly anything.

Much is said of writing the perfect, engaging lead to draw your readers in by grabbing their attention. I couldn’t agree more. If you can’t get them to read past the first paragraph, you won’t have to worry much about how your story ends.

Unfortunately, many writers, who have crafted an amazing lead and kept their readers engaged throughout their writing,  either leave their readers hanging at the end, or worse, drop kick them out of their story. How many times have you invested time in a book or article to be disappointed with the ending? For me that answer is “too many.”

Here are some  different methods  for writing great endings that will leave your reader satisfied:

1. End your story on  an upbeat note. Set your reader free feeling good, uplifted, or at least have him learn something from his investment of time.

2. Let your reader fill in his own blanks. End your story with a question, maybe even a hypothetical question. Or leave  some mystery surrounding your ending. This is especially effective when writing sequels or chapter endings. Leave you reader thinking, “Hmm…I wonder…”

3. Come full circle with your lead. Use a certain unique phrase or even just the main theme from your lead to bring closure to your story.

4. Close with a relevant quote. You can even tie this into point number 3 if you opened with a quote by the same person.

5. Provide a brief summary. This works best, of course, if you’re writing nonfiction. Recap the main points of what you just covered, then present them in a concise manner to close your article.

6. Surprise ending. Write a shocking statement at the end of your story that will completely catch your reader off-guard. It could be a point you hadn’t brought up yet that enables you to save the best  point for last, or it might just be a humorous statement to give the reader something to remember.

7. Anecdotal ending. Either present a new anecdote to  the end of your story that  helps bring out your main theme, or finish an anecdote you began earlier. It can be very effective to  write an anecdote early on, then not finish it until the end of your story.

8. Know when to end. When is that? When you’re done. After your theme has been fully supported by appropriate facts and subpoints, and you have finished telling all you need to, wrap it up and get out!

When you think of a brand, what comes to  mind? Coca-Cola, Nike, or Apple, perhaps? A brand is a name that, when you hear it, you immediately know what kind of product it is. The more trusted and well known of a product it is, the stronger the brand has become.

As writers, we can also be branded. Brands, in part, help others perceive us as experts for what we write. Why’s this so important?

Branding helps us build trust  in our readers. If you’re a mystery writer, you want to develop that brand in a unique way so your readers know exactly what to expect from you,  and so they trust you to deliver a particular style of mystery every time. By doing so, you will create a loyal following.

Think about what would happen if you popped opened a new can of Coke on Monday, and it tasted differently than it did last Friday. Thursday you opened a new can, and it was different still. You’d suddenly stop trusting the brand because it wasn’t consistently delivering. Remember the “new” Coke in the ’90s? That proved to be a disastrous move by Coca-Cola, nearly wrecking the brand they’d spent decades  solidifying. People didn’t want “new.” They wanted Coke to taste like it had since their childhood.

You may not be ready for branding yet. That’s okay. Better to  do it right the first time then have to change your brand or redefine it down the road.

To learn more about branding, I recommend checking out Blogging Bistro for an expertise viewpoint of the topic.

For some reason, my posts appeared to have posted in reverse order on my site. If you are a subscriber and received the same post twice, pls visit my site to view the complete interview with Dianne. Sorry about that!

For my next two posts, I’ve asked Dianne Butts  to share from her more than 20 years of writing experience on how to write query letters. Dianne has over 250 published magazine articles, so she must be doing something right! I believe she has many tips and tidbits that can get you on the right path to conquering the query!  Here’s Diane…

Dianne Butts

When I started freelancing, I found query letters very intimidating. I met writers who wouldn’t even submit to periodicals that required them. I knew that wasn’t good and would be a real detriment to my career, so I set out to master writing queries. Whether I’m a master at writing queries or not you’ll have to judge, but I know I’ve had many queries open doors for me to submit an article that was then accepted. And queries don’t intimidate me anymore.

Also, query writing is not just for magazine/periodical writers. If you want to write books, you’ll most likely need to write a query letter to open the doors for sending your book proposal. It’s not hard to tweak the suggestions below to fit your book. I hope the following points help you master query letters:

After you have a handle on what your target market wants, and after you have an idea to query about, you’ll need the following (if they apply to your project):

1.  Personal note, if appropriate.  Have you met the editor or been in contact?  If so, kindly remind the editor of where you met and what you talked about.

2.  Introduce your article or story.  Grab the editor’s attention. If you’ve already worked hard on a wonderful opening for your article, use that.

3.  Type of article.  Is it a personal experience? Interview? A how-to? Mystery fiction? Briefly indicate what category your article fits into.

4. What, specifically, is it about? Use the one-sentence thesis statement you created for your article. Tantalize, but don’t give it all away. Example, if your article contains ten points, give your top three.

5.  How is it organized? You might say, “In this article I will discuss…” and name your main points or subsections. Then, “For each section I will include one personal anecdote, a true story, and the lesson I learned.” Or, “In this article, I offer ten steps how to…”

6. Why you wrote it.  How will this article benefit readers? Finish this sentence: “Through this article I hope to…” (inspire? educate? inform?)

7. What sidebars do you have to offer? Give the title(s) and word count(s)  for any sidebars you wish to include.

8. If on theme, which one? If your article fits in with an upcoming theme the publication is planning, be sure to let the editor know.

9. If a seasonal piece, suggest when it might run.  “This Christmas piece…” Or, “Although this article could run at any time, it might work well in a May issue for Mother’s Day or a June issue for Father’s Day.” Sometimes it helps to give the editor a suggestion for where to use it. Not that the editor doesn’t know where it might fit,  but you may spark an idea he didn’t think about.

10. Your qualifications to write itNot your writing credentials, but rather, what qualifies you to write the piece. For example. if your article’s on a medical issue, do you have a medical back ground?

Be sure to stop back Monday, March 8, when Dianne will  finish her tips  for  query letter writing and offer advice on how to expertly target your query letters.

Dianne Butts has written for over 50 different Christian print magazines and seventeen books. If you’d like to learn more about writing query letters, consider Dianne’s pamphlet, “Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter,” available for $3.95 plus shipping at http://www.dianneebutts.com/conquering_the_dreaded_query_letter.htm.

Dianne also offers a free, monthly e-zine for writers, Dianne E. Butts About Writing. Subscribe at  her website, www.DianneEButts.com. And, be sure to follow Dianne’s adventures and challenges in self-publishing her book at www.DeliverMeBook.blogspot.com.